Posted by: Nazausgraben | July 29, 2010

THE GRAND ULRICHSKIRCHE RENOVATION PROJECT: PART II


Day 16.  The archeologists have arrived…four young dedicated professionals, bedecked in digging and measuring gear. They will be spending the next six or so weeks with project leadership (Gebi, Pfarrer S. and Pfarrer B, representatives from the Denkmalamt), construction/ excavation specialists (Rudl and his team) and the village Freiwillige Helfer (volunteer helpers) uncovering whatever there is to be found under the floor of the Ulrichskirche.

A call from Gebi requests that the Freiwillige report to the church at 0730. There, we will meet the team of archeologists and be briefed about what we are to be doing for the next weeks whenever we might be available. Some Freiwillige have taken vacations to participate whilst others will be helping during those hours after their return from work or travel. There is a small core group of us, about six hardy pensioners, who are able to devote most of our days to the work.

We arrive at the Ulrichskirche to find that Rudl and his team have already arrived. There are two massive yellow containers, each capable of holding upwards to 17 tons of earth and stone, squatting on the asphalt pavement on the hill upon which the church and Vidum sit. Rudl sits in the cab of his small ‘Bagger’ (excavator).  There are two small driven tracked vehicles nearby into which Rudl will deposit his excavator shovels-full of earth.

With shovels, picks and trowels in hand, the Freiwillige team enters the church and heads up to the High Alter, about which the first earth is to be carefully removed.

Gebi, Sepp, Karl and Hubert heave picks and jackhammers into action… removing the cement that was laid down in front of each of the two side altars during a small restoration project back during the 1950s. Gebi must also remove the ancient Baptismal Font that has been built into the Baroque church wall. It is solidly in place and his efforts to free it from the confines of its niche take time, resulting in the creation of copious amounts of of noise and sweat.

Gebi then asks all of us to gather in the Sanctuary by the High Altar; we are about to exhume the remains of the Heilige Bruder Ulrich. We stand in a circle, staring down at the engraved block that covers the hole into which Ulrichs bones were laid when they were moved from the side altar during the 1950 renovations. Now, they must again be disinterred and placed away until a wall niche can be built. It is hoped that in this niche, Ulrich will be able to finally rest in peace.

Gebi says some quiet words and we pause to reflect on the life of Ulrich and how it came to be that this humble friar came to rest here underneath the roof of one of Austrias most beautiful churches (as described in an earlier chapter).

Now, we watch as Marcus, pick in hand, begins to gingerly tap away at the hard cement block atop which the inscribed much older Grundstein has been affixed. He digs down deep around the cement sarcophagus, hoping to be able to remove it and its contents from the floor. To no avail; the thick casement is solidly planted into the earth and will not move a micron. Gebi takes a jackhammer and very carefully starts to break away the thick wall of cement.

Finally, a thin opening appears in the side of the cement block, just underneath the Grundstein. We gather closely and look. Midst the shadows of the afternoon, we can clearly see the bones of Brother Ulrich. Lying half-buried amongst large shards of rock, we see what appear to be a rib or two as well as a single femur.  The bones are tenderly removed, wrapped for protection and taken to the Vidum for safe storage. There is quiet throughout the church as this is done…there is the feeling of great respect for the holiness of this man as his now ancient remains are carried out of the light quiet of his church. The sunlight streams through the thick almost opaque window glass, creating a series of spotlight circles on the hard soil leading toward the main entrance of the church. With Brother Ulrich’s departure, all forces swing into activity.

We watch as the archeologists conduct a brief visual survey of the entire church interior. Already they have spotted several artifacts protruding from the dirt floor. Small plastic bags begin to appear into which the artifacts are stored.

One of the archeologists, Marcus, uses a metal detector to scan the floor near the plastic bedecked High Altar. The detector beeps as it locates one small hidden ‘treasure’ after another. At this 18th century layer of soil, he begins to uncover some handcrafted nails and coins dating as far back as the 17th century.

Day 17.  There is a roar of engines and the rumble to approaching treads. Like Panzers on the offensive, Rudl in the Bagger and the two tracked dumpsters appear in the almost blinding sunlight at the entrance of the church. They slowly, carefully enter through the opened portal…just fitting their bulk underneath the first Ebene overhang. They enter the church and trundle through the Nave toward the Sanctuary and its High Altar. It is not easy going, as they must remain on the packed dirt where the center aisle stones used to lie. Now, the earth below the tracks begins to crumble as these heavy machines slowly make their way forward…carefully trying not to disturb too much of what may lie below. They eventually reach the slightly raised Sanctuary.

I cannot help but wonder how Rudl will be able to do any excavating here without causing a great deal of damage…scooping out and away an entire layer of history with the large steel shovel mounted to his excavator. Yet, I watch in utter amazement as he deftly lowers the shovel to the dirt floor and, with the deftness of lifting a newborn, he is able to remove the thinnest upper layer of soil as easily and carefully as if he had done so with manually with a small trowel. His slight movements on the control levers extending from the deck of the excavator cab make his every action seem as natural; it is as though the excavator arm and shovel are, respectively, Rudel’s arm and hand.

The shovel full of gray dirt, Rudl swings the cab and arm-shovel assembly about and deposits the load into the waiting maul of the tracked dumpster.

Dust is everywhere…our clothes hair, eyes. We don our surgical facemasks, hoping to keep as much as possible out of our lungs.

The archeologists have already searched the load of soil, and are satisfied that the dumpster does not contain any artifacts. Still, we all keep a careful watch on whatever is removed, as it is possible that the metal detector missed something…that even the trained eyes of the archeologists might have passed over a slight, grit-covered item. Nothing yet.

The upper-most layers of soil now removed, the blue tracked dumpster drives out of the church and empties its load into one of the outside yellow containers. In its stead, a yellow dumpster enters the church, hungrily awaiting its own precious load. The excavator follows, headed toward the area of the Nave directly before the Sanctuary where the most forward pews once stood. There, Rudel works with members of the archeologist-Freiwillige team to carefully remove earth from the floor of the Nave…scooping out soil from the church sides toward the center aisle area….first on one side of the center aisle, then the other.

They work their way back toward the main church portal from whence they first entered. In doing so, they will slice through the various layers of brown earth. The archeologists will first scan each area with the metal detector and visually…removing whatever they might find. Once the signal is given that all is ready, Rudl will begin to dig down about 6-inches at time, and pull out a long swathe of earth for the waiting dumpster.

The metal detector is in constant action and both archeologists and Freiwillige diggers swarm bee-like about the queen excavator. Yet, this Bauwerk choreography is accomplished with great care and safety. Plastic bags are rapidly being filled with shards of ceramics and metal objects… some encased in thick clumps of deep hardened soil. 

The project has now been ‘divided’ into two major areas of operation; that in the Sanctuary, and that in the Nave.

Two of the archeologists stationed in the Sanctuary are down on bended knees…carefully, slowly painstakingly sweeping aside the dry soil fore the High Altar. Doing so reveals light brown ceramic tiles that define ….what? Clearly, they are uncovering a floor from the second medieval Ulrichskapelle; that which was built from stone during the 15th century. What we are seeing is the expanse of the old Sanctuary in the area fore the older, no longer extant High Altar. The tiles are fairly uniform, fixed securely in the dirt below…that is, except for two areas about 3-feet in diameter where the tiles have sunken about 11-inches into the earth. For the moment, we have no explanation for these large depressions…except for the theory that there may be open areas beneath the tiles wherein lie…well, we do not as yet know.

Another archeologist works with a shovel…digging a trench around the periphery of the semi-circular Sanctuary. In doing so, he is revealing the remains of the ancient outer stone walls that defined the medieval stone chapel. It is becoming clear to see that the much larger 18th century church was built directly over the smaller medieval structure.

Ausgraben in the Ulrichskirche Sanctuary. The archeologists have uncovered the tile floor of the medieval Ulrichskappelle (fore the Baroque High Altar). To the right is the trench that clearly reveals the stone wall of the eastern wall of the Ulrichskappelle. The empty cask that housed Holy Ulrich's bones is in the lower foreground.

Rudl has already made his way back toward the columns supporting the first Ebene overhang. As a result of Rudl’s work, the archeologists and Freiwillige working in the Nave are also uncovering more of the medieval stone outer wall of the second Ulrichskappelle. 

Removal of the upper soil layers along the eastern wall reveals an adjacent 5-ft. by 10-ft. “patio” of stones firmly embedded into the soil. It is a unique area; nothing else like it has as yet been uncovered. The stones are of a size and type that they clearly were transported from the nearby Lech River and used to build this area next to the chapel. The stones employed to build the chapel walls are large, irregularly shaped boulders. Yet these are much smaller…fist-sized, rounded and smoothly regular.

The archeologists hypothesize that this might have been a covered area next to a side entrance to the chapel….a decorative Terrasse of sorts. Indeed, a close inspection of the wall just to north of this ‘patio’ reveals a break in the wall…not as wide as the main south-west chapel entrance…but an entranceway never-the-less. This is further confirmed as we unearth evidence of a distinct pathway leading from the front of the chapel to the side entrance. It is bordered on one side by the stone chapel wall and on the other by what has been determined to be a low stone wall.

On the other side of the low wall, we are finding that the soil is unlike any we have seen to date. In contrast to the light gray dry soil investigated so far, this newly exposed lower layer of soil is rich, almost black and with a mossy moist texture. That means that the low stone wall next to the side walkway may have been the border to the ancient chapel cemetery.

With all of the information that we have to date, it is now becoming possible to in our minds eye to construct a ‘rough’ image of the medieval chapel as it might have appeared. As indicated by the large break in the south-western-side wall (that aligned with the current church main entrance), the orientation of the medieval structure was the same as that of the later baroque church; that is, toward the north-east. It was approximately half the length, three-quarters the width and two-thirds the height of the Ulrichskirche in which we now work.

The stone Ulrichskappelle as it might have looked when built in 1414. Sketch by Project Leader and Chronist, Gebi Haller (from Haller, G. (2002). Pfarrkirche St. Ulrich, Pinswang.

 Day 18.  Rudl and his team are now very close to the main entrance of the church. They are rapidly losing room to work, now perched precariously atop a small hill in front of the very old church main entranceway door.  Rudl is really a master…he moves the excavator will ease and grace, so finely balanced that it appears that at any moment he and his machine will topple headlong into the now 3-foot deep floor. Yet, despite some worried looks from a couple of us, Rudl remains cool and determined. The tracked dumpsters can now enter the church only as far as the portal. Five or six shovel-fulls and they are fully loaded.

Despite the careful exploration with the metal detector and visual scans, it is becoming apparent that we are not finding all of the treasures that lie beneath us. One of the dumpster drivers, Reinhardt, suddenly reaches down into the dumpster and pulls out a small metal object. It is a medieval bell…dirty but still intact. It was probably carried by one of the Ministraten (altar boys) serving Mass sometime between 1400 and 1600. It must be cleaned and researched, but amongst the hundreds of ceramic pieces of pottery, the numerous coins and even the 20th century baby pacifier that have been so-far discovered, this bell will, I am certain, prove to be one of the more significant finds. I must wonder…what else are we missing? With each dumpster load headed out to the massive yellow containers, how many other small, even priceless artifacts have we unfortunately not been able to preserve?

Since we began out work, large trucks have come and gone, hauling away the massive containers filled with 17-tons of St. Ulrich earth…headed to a landfill where it will once again be interred. Now, after his find, Reinhardt and I spend as much time as possible at the dumpster…searching… searching…looking for that undiscovered piece of history that has been so rudely scooped up by the unknowing steel shovel.

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